Steve Grutzmacher: Spit, Spitting, Spitten, Splitting – What’s an Etymologist to Do?


I have a very small family. Neither my mother nor my father had siblings and my grandparents and great grandparents were all deceased by the time I was in my early 20s and my father died when I was 40.

As most regular readers of this column already know, I have a rather perverse interest in obscure facts and information. And it is my proclivity to share these obscure facts whenever possible. Thus, when you note the opening paragraph of this column and combine it with the first two sentences in this paragraph, you understand that I tended to drive my family members crazy.

It would be tempting to say that my family members are better off since I began writing a column and discovered another outlet for what my mother calls “my useless information,” but my suspicion is that they would all disagree – adamantly.

Unfortunately for my family (and you, my dear readers) I have never been able to control or even moderate my enthusiasm for the obscure or little known. I could point out that, as an alcoholic, I have a propensity for addictive behavior that is pre-programmed into my brain. And, to be honest, I often wonder what my brain might be capable of accomplishing if so much of it wasn’t filled with what many feel is the irrelevant.

Nonetheless, I can’t help myself and, when I discovered a paper by professor Laurence Horn, I had to share – with you, dear readers.

I will get to professor Horn in a bit, but our starting point is the etymology (the study of the origin of words and phrases and how they have evolved through time) of the phrase “spitting image.”

This rather curious expression has been around hundreds of years and is familiar to almost everyone you meet. The most common usage is typically, “He is the spitting image of his father,” meaning that the son bears an uncanny resemblance to his father. Even though we all understand the meaning, you have to admit that “spitting image” is an extremely curious turn of phrase.

When you go to research the origin of “spitting image” you discover, not surprisingly, that there is no definitive answer, but the evolution of the phrase (in written form) is fascinating.

One of the earliest examples dates from 1689, in the metaphor “It’s like he was spat out of his father’s mouth.” When we skip ahead to 1825 we find the phrase “He’s the very spit of his father.” This one is particularly interesting because it is something called a metonymy, which is the substitution of an attribute adjunct for the thing you are referring to, as in saying “the track” to mean horse racing. In order for metonymy to be used, the phrase – and its meaning – has to be common enough in everyday usage that everyone understands what is being said.

By 1859 we find the first cliché form in “The spit and image of his father,” a re-wording of the metonymy, which becomes widely used.

In 1878, the phrase “spitten image” arises, which seems to be an elision of “spit and image.” I will return to this form of the phrase, and Professor Horn’s hypothesis of its meaning very soon.

In 1901 we get the first recorded use of “spitting image,” replacing “spitten” and much more syntactically correct and finally, in 1939 we first see the phrase “splitting image,” which, is at least, a much more semantically plausible phrase than any of its predecessors.

And this brings us to Laurence Horn, professor of linguistics at Yale University, who wrote a paper titled “Spitten Image: Etymythology and Fluid Dynamics” (American Speech, 79, 1, 33-58). Note that he invents the word “etymythology” in the title, a word he defines as: “The invention of lexical urban legends that explain various expressions in the language without any actual historical support for them.”

An example of etymythology is that the word “gringo” originated during the Mexican-American war because the American soldiers wore green uniforms – hence, “green go.” Of course, this is patently wrong. The term “gringo” predates the Mexican-American war by hundreds of years and American soldiers did not begin wearing green uniforms until the 1940s.

Aside from introducing the term etymythology, Horn postulates a rather interesting origination of spitten image. In simplest terms, Horn states that spitten image refers to “a likeness that is literally spit out.” According to Horn, however, the “spit” is actually another bodily fluid found only in men. This explanation, as Horn states, “is inherently more relevant to the transmission of genetic material.”

This also explains why virtually all historical uses of the phrase are applied to fathers and sons.

Of course, Horn’s paper contains considerable corroborating research and evidence for his claim, which would, no doubt, bore you into a stupor, thus I will not include any of that information here. But next time you hear the phrase, “he’s the spitting image of his father” I have little doubt you will remember Professor’s Horn’s theory, if not his name.

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